Nelson Mandela’s virtue of forgiveness

Nelson Mandela forgave unconditionally.

His life was a dimension of generosity and magnanimity, in both political defeat and victory.

A multitude of adjectives describe him: statesman, magnanimous, dignified, patient and gentlemanly.

He believed that by displaying dignity, and by consciously withholding animosity, he could accomplish far more than he could possibly achieve, armed with a fistful of ultimatums and threats.

Anyone who contemplates his story can see the virtue of forgiveness. Again and again as his common choice: his own share of incidents of the salty pains of injustice, brutality and deprival (to which forgiveness seemed a weak and unsatisfying response) only deepened his resolve — not to step back from his efforts to untangle his country’s agonized knit of racial tension and to fulfill the need for a rubicon of political change.

Until February 1990 (when Mandela, radiating with forgiveness was released from prison) the apartheid system (meaning  “apartress” in Africanas) ruled on the grounds that black South Africans (for cultural reasons) were incapable of the same design of self-rule or political maturity as whites.

It was blatantly founded on racist assumptions about the nature of different ethics and racial groups.

It required, at all times, not merely to use separate facilities of transportation, entertainment, sanitation and accommodation, display, subservience when in the presence of Whites.

What Mandela simply wanted was “a just share in the whole of South Africa: they want security and state… political rights above all…the right to live, indignity.”

Imprisoned for 27 years, humiliation piled on Mandela and the other prisoners. Visits were cherished, yet were excruciatingly frustrating. Conversations had to be in English or Afrikaan and the wardens could interrupt the conversation and inquire if an unfamiliar word came up in the conversation.

When Minnie (Mandela’s beloved wife) showed up for the first permitted visit in August 1964, she was banned for the second time, fired from her social worker position. Because of various sad pressure, she was unable to see here husband for another two years.

Mandela was placed in the isolation cell, when found reading a newspaper (which was strictly illegal) he picked up from the guard.

In the isolation cell, there was no food for three days, no exercise and no company with any other person.

Among wardens, there were affairs and divorces. They have tried to disbar Mandela, but he never lost his professional instincts as a lawyer and successfully fought back with a barrage of legal complaints and demands.

His adversaries eventually gave up. Despite such intimidation and all of these experiences, courtesy turned out to be one of Mandela’s most powerful weapons.

Together with this inherent dignity (as the former ward of a chief), he deployed courtesy in all situations — winning over the  actual loyalty of his adversaries.

In the prison system, or at the very least earning their respect…”all men,”  he reflected, have a core of decency, and if their heart is touched, they are capable of changing.”

It was his own decency, his unassailable core of dignity, which breaks through savagery and brutality.

In 1977, when compulsory manual labors for prisoners ended, the political prisoners were confined to their own section.

He began to plant vegetables in a small plot of dirt.

He read wildly:  Tolstoy, Steinbeck, Daphne de Maurier and the South African novelist(and later hotel laureate), Nadine Gordimor.

The young Mandela (who was picked up on a desolate stretch of road by the police) was described as cocky and pugnacious, passionate, emotional, sensitive and quickly stung to bitterness and retaliation by insult and patronage.

The Mandela, who came out of prison, was obviously different, says Stengel of Time. He prized, above all, other qualities: “rationality, logic, compromise that distrusted sentiments.”

“I came out mature,” he says of his prison years.

Prison can embitter and envenom men as easily it can ennoble them. But radiating forgiveness, what the world saw was how imprisonment shaped and zealed a revolutionary of over twenty-seven years, endowing him with moral stature and political grace.

On his first few days of freedom, he was so astonished by the press attention and by gratifying foreign plaudits from all over the world. He was also struck by how friendly many were toward him, as he travelled to more than twenty countries around the world, being feted in triumph and in many encounters afterwards — a triumphant ticker tape parade in New York’s Wall Street, the rare honor of addressing a joint session in the US Congress and being treated like a visiting head of state at the White House, among others.

In his 1994 election, despite deep personal anguish, there was no let up in his pursuit of majority rule. He deployed the full force of his unblemished moral stature:  his emotional self-discipline and his stubborn persistence in continuing negotiations, even when the talks looked as though they’ve become deadlocked, as observed by a time correspondent.

Mandela brought back the virtue of forgiveness into the ravaged countryside of twentieth-century politics.


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